Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


The Problem of Evil (or the Argument from Evil) argues that an almighty creator-god, capable of creating or destroying anything and even capable of suspending or re-writing the laws of nature, such as is envisaged by most of the major world religions, should easily be powerful enough to alleviate all needless suffering in the world, to provide adequate resources for everyone, to prevent the occurrence of fatal or debilitating diseases or birth defects and to prevent all manner of destructive natural disasters. Indeed, an infinitely benevolent and loving god, of the kind envisioned by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, should make such actions his first priority. And yet what we see in the world is very different from that picture - proof positive that there is no such god in existence.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
- David Hume (1776, paraphrasing Epicurus c. 300 BC)

The problem of evil was first articulated as long ago as the 4th Century BC by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. His argument can be paraphrased as follows: God is, by definition, supposed to be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. And yet there is avoidable suffering in the world. Therefore, there are three possibilities: if God is not able to stop the suffering, then he is not all-powerful; if he does not want to stop it, then he is not all-loving; if he does not even know about it, then he is not all-knowing. Either way, he is not God as he has been defined.

Religious believers routinely employ a kind of ad hoc or selective observation of the world - sometimes referred to as “counting the hits and ignoring the misses”. Believers who wax lyrical and heap praises on a god who saves someone from the wreckage of a catastrophic air crash - something we see all too often in the news - are conveniently forgetting the hundreds of others who died in the crash. And what kind of an all-seeing, all-powerful god would allow such a tragedy to occur - or presumably even cause it, if we are to believe in the hands-on, micro-managing God of some Christians - in the first place? A miraculous recovery in hospital is touted as proof of God’s goodness and the power of prayer, while an equally improbable relapse or unexpected death is brushed aside as bad luck or professional incompetence.

A couple of other more specific examples should be sufficient to make the point without labouring the issue. Pope John Paul II attributed his survival of a 1981 assassination attempt to the divine intervention of Our Lady of Fatima rather than to the six hours of medical attention he received from a team of top surgeons, and totally disregarded the possibility that Our Lady might have guided the bullet away from him completely. In October 1998, at exactly the same time as American astronaut John Glenn was interpreting the beautiful view of Earth from the Space Shuttle as proof that “there must truly be a Creator”, Hurricane Mitch was ravaging and laying waste to Central America, causing billions of dollars of damage and killing over 11,000 people.

To say that “God works in mysterious ways” is hardly a justification for his allowing a mass shooting at a school or a tsunami in a poor third world country. Neither is it any consolation to think of such events as tests or opportunities for us to do good. Another attempted defence by theists against the Argument from Evil is that God has to allow the possibility that humans might commit evil in order to allow them free will. In addition to other objections which can be levelled against this idea, it does not address the existence of natural evils or disasters, such as earthquakes, diseases, etc, which are not under human control and do not result from human decisions.

In fact, it may not actually be useful to think of evil as a noun or thing, suggesting that it is a metaphysical entity with an existence all of its own. There is no fixed and unchanging Platonic form or essence of evil. Like good, evil is merely a human construct, and to call something “evil” does not lead us to a greater understanding of evil behaviour. For example, earthquakes that kill thousands of people are not, in and of themselves, evil; bacterial diseases can not be inherently evil, although we may label their effects as evil. Recognition of this does not, however, negate the atheist argument, merely confirms that the argument need not be couched in theistic terms.

In any event, if God is “good” in the same way that expects us to be “good”, then he should act to prevent such calamities, and the fact that such calamities persist are evidence that he either does not exist or is not God in the sense that his believers have portrayed him. In the atheist hypothesis, on the other hand, there is no expectation that the world should be a good place, or that evil should not exist.

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